The Lost Art Of Pinhole Photography

A pinhole camera is a simple camera without a lens and with a single small aperture — effectively a light-proof box with a small hole in one side. Light from a scene passes through this single point and projects an inverted image on the opposite side of the box. The human eye in bright light acts similarly, as do cameras using small apertures.

A pinhole camera’s shutter is usually manually operated because of the lengthy exposure times, and consists of a flap of some light-proof material to cover and uncover the pinhole. Typical exposures range from 5 seconds to hours and sometimes days.


A fire hydrant photographed by a pinhole camera directly on photographic paper to create the negative photograph (top). The positive image was created digitally from a scan of the negative image. Photo Credit: Matthew Clemente; Used Under A Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

When I was a kid, my father introduced me to photography. At the time, he was lucky enough to have a close friend who shared the photographic passion that I have today. Instead of buying me an expensive film camera (which came later on in my childhood), my father showed me how to take photographs the original way.

A pinhole camera is a very simple affair; basically a light-proof box or container which contains a photo-sensitive medium, and in my opinion a pinhole camera looks more like a birdhouse than a modern camera. My father used to save containers of Quaker Instant Oatmeal as their cardboard construction and tightly-fitting cardboard lids made amazing pinhole camera bodies. The aperture was a small 1-inch square which was cut-out and replaced with a piece of metal foil with a tiny pin hole.

Instead of the modern shutter-release and auto-focus capabilities of modern photography, when taking photographs with a pinhole camera, everything is manual. One must judge the exposure time, the focusing distance, and the sensitivity of the media being used to capture the image. Traditionally, ordinary light-sensitive photographic paper is used to capture the image, and electrical tape is used as the shutter (peel the tape off to open the shutter, and replace the tape to close the shutter). The exposure time varies from a few seconds to a number of days, depending on various factors.

Unless slide film (also known as color-positive film) is used as the recording medium, the camera will produce negative images. The photographer must then convert the media to its final print in much the same manner that images from traditional film cameras get transferred to prints. When I was taking pinhole camera pictures, I would lay the developed negative print on top of a fresh sheet of photographic paper and cover them with a piece of glass. After a short exposure to light, I would then process the newly exposed print which would yield the final result, such as the image shown above. It’s a very simple concept made complicated by my over-explanation.

The advent of digital photography and the popularity of photo-editing software made traditional pinhole photography a thing of the past. However, there are many who still experiment and produce some very interesting results using some home-brew pinhole camera equipment. Here’s a Flickr Group for Pinhole Photography.

I have heard rumors that it is possible to modify a modern SLR or DSLR camera to take pinhole photographs, but this will have to wait for future posts, while I research the possibility and run some experiments.

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  1. I built a pinhole camera in jr.high for a science project… was so much fun….wish I had saved it and the work I produced.  Buying the flat film was a bit pricy, plus, you need a dark room…..

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